Maoists’ Last Stand

In­dia’s great­est in­ter­nal se­cu­rity threat from Maoist fight­ers is re­ced­ing, but state com­pla­cency con­tin­ues to cost lives

India Today - - INSIDE - By San­deep Un­nithan

De­spite the strike in Chhattisgarh, left-wing ex­trem­ists are in re­treat as the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment gets tough

Two am­bushes a lit­tle over a month apart il­lus­trate the per­ils of un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the Maoists. On April 24, a CRPF road-open­ing party com­pris­ing 76 troop­ers at Burka­pal in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma dis­trict was sur­rounded and over­run by two Maoist ‘com­pa­nies’ num­ber­ing over 300 guer­ril­las. Twenty-five CRPF troop­ers lay dead as Maoists di­rected in­dis­crim­i­nate fire at them. It was their dead­li­est strike since the April 2010 am­bush and mas­sacre of 75 CRPF troop­ers in Chin­tal­nar, Dan­te­wada dis­trict, and fol­lowed the March 11 gun­ning down of 12 CRPF troop­ers in Bhe­jji, 20 km from dis­trict cap­i­tal Sukma.

Both am­bushes oc­curred in the Maoist strong­hold of Sukma in what the ex­trem­ists call their an­nual Tac­ti­cal Counter Of­fen­sive Cam­paign (TCOC)— the pe­riod be­tween March and June when they are in peak strength and con­stantly probe for any slack­en­ing of guard. In Burka­pal, for in­stance, they struck just when the troop­ers broke for lunch. In Bhe­jji, they care­fully watched the CRPF road-open­ing party fol­low a pre­dictable rou­tine be­fore lay­ing a deadly am­bush. These 37 deaths in just six weeks were a set­back for the govern­ment cel­e­brat­ing a stun­ning de­cline in Maoist-re­lated vi­o­lence in 2016.

On March 17 this year, Union home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh told the Lok Sabha that the num­ber of Left­wing Ex­trem­ism (LWE)-af­fected dis­tricts had con­tracted from 106 to 68. The 35 ‘most af­fected’ dis­tricts among them were in Andhra Pradesh, Bi­har, Chhattisgarh, Te­lan­gana and Maharashtra.

In the past four months, 158 per­sons—Maoists, civil­ians and se­cu­rity per­son­nel—have been killed in six states. Hor­rific as they may be, these deaths are un­likely to sig­nif­i­cantly al­ter a tide that is

slowly turn­ing against LWE. A grave threat, which then prime min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh warned, in April 2006, was the “sin­gle big­gest in­ter­nal se­cu­rity chal­lenge ever faced by our coun­try”, now has its back to the wall. Maoists are ca­pa­ble of pulling off sur­prises, but they are slowly bleed­ing ter­ri­tory and foot sol­diers in a bat­tle of at­tri­tion with the In­dian state. In Chhattisgarh, where they have the largest pres­ence, Maoist-con­trolled ter­ri­to­ries have shrunk from 20,000 sq km a decade ago to a lit­tle over 5,000 sq km, mostly in the state’s south­ern dis­tricts.

From a high of 1,180 deaths in Naxal-re­lated vi­o­lence in 2010, high enough for it to be termed a high-in­ten­sity con­flict and more than twice the num­ber of In­dian sol­diers lost in the Kargil War of 1999, deaths in Naxal vi­o­lence plunged to an all-time low of just 161 last year. This is the sharpest such de­cline in 15 years of LWE (see graphic: Con­fined In­sur­gency), but still years away from what se­cu­rity an­a­lysts say is a pre­req­ui­site to declar­ing mis­sion ac­com­plished—an en­tire year free of any LWE-re­lated in­ci­dent.

The im­pen­e­tra­ble hilly forests of Abu­j­marh, spread over nearly 4,000 sq km across Chhattisgarh’s south­ern­most dis­tricts of Bi­japur, Narayan­pur and Dan­te­wada, are core Maoist area. It has In­dia’s largest con­cen­tra­tion of left­wing ex­trem­ists who run their par­al­lel govern­ment, the ‘Janatana Sarkar’, deep in­side the forests. But it is Sukma, jut­ting into Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, and which a se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cial calls ‘de facto cap­i­tal of the Maoist state’, that is most crit­i­cal. Lo­cated at this tri-junc­tion, Sukma of­fers a vi­tal safe pas­sage for Maoists and ma­te­rial to move into other states. The dis­trict bor­ders two other LWEaf­fected dis­tricts—Odisha’s Malka­n­giri and Te­lan­gana’s Bhadradri-Koth­agu­dem. This junc­tion of con­tigu­ous ar­eas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, bor­der­ing Te­lan­gana and Andhra Pradesh, is the Maoists’ jugu­lar. It serves as a safe haven, partly be­cause nearly all the age­ing Maoist lead­ers are from the Tel­ugu-speak­ing states. They en­joy a per­va­sive net­work of sym­pa­this­ers on whom the mil­i­tants rely for lo­gis­tics and med­i­cal help.

It is here in Sukma, their back­yard, that the Maoists are wag­ing a sav­age bat­tle against their great­est en­emy: roads. The March 11 at­tack was against troop­ers guard­ing the Benji-In­ji­ram road and the April 24 at­tack was on troops guard­ing con­struc­tion teams on the 56-km Dor­na­pal-Ja­gar­gunda road. For sev­eral years, Maoists have dug up roads, planted land­mines and blown up cul­verts on this 400-km net­work of roads be­ing laid by the state govern­ment in Chhattisgarh’s south­ern dis­tricts. “Roads bring in devel­op­ment, and speed up the de­ploy­ment of se­cu­rity forces,” says a se­nior home min­istry of­fi­cial. “They con­strain the space and time ad­van­tage that the Maoists

in rugged ter­ri­tory.” The com­ple­tion of just these two roads will cut up Maoist ter­ri­tory, chal­leng­ing their pri­mary shield: in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

The con­flict with the Maoists is at a crit­i­cal junc­ture. This is where the Cen­tre’s lethargy is baf­fling. There has been no rad­i­cal change in ap­proach or any move to ad­dress strate­gic de­fi­cien­cies in the fight against Maoists. The CRPF, the main force bat­tling Maoists, re­mained with­out a full-time di­rec­tor gen­eral for two months since Fe­bru­ary. A new DG, Ra­jiv Rai Bhat­na­gar, was ap­pointed 48 hours af­ter the Burka­pal mas­sacre. It suf­fers from deficits in pol­icy, equip­ment, man­power and train­ing. This trans­lated into the CRPF send­ing un­pre­pared and ill-equipped troop­ers into one of the last Maoist strongholds in the coun­try.

The CRPF troop­ers who were am­bushed had none of the equip­ment rec­om­mended as far back as in 2012 in a home min­istry mod­erni­sa­tion plan. Of the ap­prox­i­mately Rs 83,000 crore al­lo­ca­tion for the home min­istry in the 2017 Union bud­get, Rs 17,868 crore went to its largest force, the 300,000-strong CRPF. The list of equip­ment ap­proved but not pro­cured—from Mine Pro­tected Ve­hi­cles (MPVs) to drones, ther­mal im­agers and ground pen­e­trat­ing radars— grows longer with each pass­ing year (see graphic: Un­pro­tected on the Ground).

The troops in Sukma had none of the ac­cou­trements—dog squads or MPVs—that would help de­tect or break the am­bush. The CRPF has been au­tho­rised to buy 352 MPVs (cost­ing over Rs 1 crore apiece), but it has only 120 such ve­hi­cles. The force does not have any work­shops in the Maoist-af­fected re­gions, so at least 40 per cent of the ve­hi­cles are not op­er­a­tional at any given time.

Of greater con­cern are man­power is­sues. In the past three years, nearly 7,000 CRPF per­son­nel have quit, in­clud­ing 1,085 in­spec­tors, sub-in­spec­tors and as­sis­tant sub-in­spec­tor rank of­fi­cers who lead the com­pa­nies, sec­tions and pla­toons in counter-Maoist op­er­a­tions. These short­ages have hol­lowed out the lead­er­ship on the ground. In the April 24 am­bush, a lone in­spec­tor was in charge of two com­pa­nies whereas the rec­om­mended of­fi­cer strength for such a force would have been at least five of­fi­cers— one deputy com­man­dant, two in­spec­tors and two deputy in­spec­tors. The Sukma en­coun­ters have sowed the seeds for fur­ther dan­ger. In just one am­bush, Maoists made away with 22 weapons, in­clud­ing AK-47 and INSAS ri­fles, and over 3,000 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion—suf­fi­cient to mount another such am­bush.

A deadly armed peas­ant in­sur­rec­tion which started in Nax­al­bari in West Ben­gal 50 years ago on May 25, 1967, rode on the back of ex­ploita­tion and lack of land re­forms. By Au­gust 1971, the upris­ing had been vi­o­lently su­pen­joy


pressed by the po­lice and In­dian army.

In 2004, em­bers of the Maoist move­ment, which flick­ered on in two In­dian states, lit up to start a for­est fire. The Peo­ple’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Com­mu­nist Cen­tre (MCC) of Bi­har and Jhark­hand merged to form the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Maoist). It trig­gered a deadly war cov­er­ing a con­tin­u­ous swathe of ar­eas from South In­dia to the Indo-Nepal bor­der, af­fect­ing nine states and ac­count­ing for 27 per cent of the coun­try’s area and 39 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

While the state slept, a hard­core cadre of vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists from Andhra Pradesh, led by the be­spec­ta­cled and enig­matic supremo Mup­palla Lak­sh­mana Rao, alias ‘Gana­p­a­thy’, 67, spread their ten­ta­cles into re­gions of cen­tral In­dia so in­ac­ces­si­ble that they had been left un­sur­veyed from colo­nial times. The Maoists swiftly es­tab­lished their par­al­lel govern­ment, run­ning schools and courts, col­lect­ing taxes, de­cid­ing crop­ping pat­terns and ex­pand­ing their tribal army, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Guer­rilla Army (PLGA), thought to num­ber 2,000 fight­ing cadre in Chhattisgarh’s Bas­tar re­gion.

In the new war against Maoists, the mil­i­tary is be­ing used only in a sup­port role—six air force Mi-17V-5 trans­port he­li­copters based in Chhattisgarh and Jhark­hand are used for fer­ry­ing ca­su­al­ties and trans­port­ing troops and equip­ment. The chop­pers have their cock­pits re­in­forced by plates of ar­moured steel to pro­tect them from Maoist fire (one he­li­copter was downed by Maoists in Jan­uary 2013).

The ap­proach of the state has been the clas­sic counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy of ‘Clear-Hold-Build’. Clear an area of in­sur­gents, hold on to it by putting up se­cu­rity posts and then grad­u­ally ex­pand the area un­der the con­trol of the state by build­ing up phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, such as banks, mo­bile phone tow­ers and roads.

The in­flec­tion point came af­ter the 2010 Chin­tal­nar mas­sacre. Then home min­is­ter P. Chi­dambaram be­gan a twopronged plan to equip and em­power the state po­lice forces, push more paramil­i­tary forces into the LWE-af­fected dis­tricts and build up for­ti­fied po­lice sta­tions in re­mote ar­eas. The other prong was to em­power the dis­trict of­fi­cials to build in­fra­struc­ture, like schools, roads, toi­lets and drink­ing wa­ter fa­cil­i­ties, in ar­eas freed of Maoists. A uni­fied com­mand was set up in Chhattisgarh, Jhark­hand and West Ben­gal to closely co­or­di­nate the ac­tiv­i­ties of the po­lice, paramil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence units. This strat­egy can to a large ex­tent be cred­ited for turn­ing around the ne­glect of the early 2000s.

The state is now mov­ing back in, al­beit slowly. The NDA’s home min­istry, un­der Ra­j­nath Singh, has largely con­tin­ued the UPA’s clear-hold-build plan. In the 35 dis­tricts cat­e­gorised as ‘worst af­fected’, the Cen­tre has opened 358 new bank branches, 752 ATMs and 1,789 post of­fices in the past two years.

In the first phase be­tween Jan­uary and De­cem­ber 2015, 932 mo­bile phone tow­ers have been put up. Another


175 ad­di­tional mo­bile tow­ers are pro­posed to be con­structed in the next phase to in­crease mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity in the LWE-af­fected ar­eas.

The road trans­port and high­ways min­istry had con­structed 3,904 km of roads un­til Jan­uary 31, 2016, in the 34 worst LWE-af­fected dis­tricts in eight states. A to­tal of 5,422 km of roads re­main to be con­structed. The govern­ment ac­cel­er­ated a counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy of flood­ing Maoist ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly in Chhattisgarh, with paramil­i­tary forces. “Be­tween 2010 and 2014, we have seen a surge in the num­ber of paramil­i­tary bat­tal­ions from 30 to 100,” says a se­nior home min­istry of­fi­cial. Each bat­tal­ion has 800 troop­ers.

The Chhattisgarh govern­ment has com­pleted build­ing 70 out of a planned 75 for­ti­fied po­lice sta­tions in the Maoist-af­fected south­ern dis­tricts un­der a Rs 150 crore plan. These have per­ma­nent build­ings which can sta­tion over 100 po­lice­men. The po­lice go out on multi-di­rec­tional pa­trols.

“We are slowly cut­ting their roots,” says Bri­gadier Bas­ant Ku­mar Pon­war (re­tired), who runs the Counter Ter­ror­ism and Jun­gle War­fare Col­lege in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. “One day,” he pre­dicts, “this huge Maoist tree will just wither and fall.”

Ji­tu­ram Savlam, 27, is a prized catch for the Chhattisgarh po­lice. Last year, he and wife Po­jje, both hard­core Maoist foot sol­diers, turned their backs on the revo­lu­tion. They slipped out of their Maoist camp in Dan­te­wada, changed into civil­ian clothes, leav­ing their black uni­forms and ri­fles, trekked through the jun­gles and gave them­selves up. Now re­cruited into the po­lice ranks, the dis­il­lu­sioned guer­rilla is a valu­able in­tel­li­gence source for the po­lice against his for­mer com­rades. Savlam is one of the hun­dreds who sur­ren­dered to the po­lice last year.

In 2016, the Maoists lost 134 fight­ers in en­coun­ters with the se­cu­rity forces and saw 250 weapons be­ing re­cov­ered from them. “We have been ap­ply­ing re­lent­less pres­sure on them,” says Durgesh Mad­hav Awasthy, spe­cial di­rec­tor gen­eral (Naxal Op­er­a­tions and Spe­cial In­tel­li­gence Bureau), Chhattisgarh. “We have gone in for in­tel­li­gence-based op­er­a­tions. Over the past 18 months, we have at­tacked two or three Maoist camps ev­ery week. They haven’t at­tacked a sin­gle camp of ours.”

In the past seven years, 848 Maoists in the steeply hi­er­ar­chi­cal CPI (Maoist) have been killed, cap­tured, or have sur­ren­dered. Those cap­tured in­clude two mem­bers of the CPI (Maoist) cen­tral com­mit­tee—K. Mu­ralid­ha­ran from Pune in 2015 and Anukul Chan­dra Naskar from Cachar in As­sam in 2013. Home min­istry fig­ures show 1,442 left­wing ex­trem­ists sur­ren­dered last year, more than three times the num­ber in 2015; 397 Maoists sur­ren­dered in the first three months of this year. The Maoist lead­er­ship re­mains the pri­mary cause for con­cern. Most mem­bers of the CPI (Maoist) cen­tral com­mit­tee and polit­buro are be­lieved to be hid­ing in ma­jor ur­ban cen­tres and towns bor­der­ing Chhattisgarh.

Po­lice as­sess­ments say the Maoists will cease to be a threat within five years. But for that, the civil ad­min­is­tra­tion and se­cu­rity forces will have to keep up the twopronged pres­sure of devel­op­ment and se­cu­rity in LWE ar­eas. In time, the de­cline in Maoist ac­tiv­ity could be built up into per­ma­nent de­feat of this move­ment.

In re­cent years, the Maoists have suf­fered tremen­dous losses, in­clud­ing in the top lead­er­ship, leav­ing the move­ment in dire straits. “It is, how­ever, pre­ma­ture to de­clare vic­tory and let our guard down,” says Ajai Sahni, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Con­flict Man­age­ment, Delhi. “The Maoists re­tain suf­fi­cient op­er­a­tional ca­pac­i­ties to do sig­nif­i­cant harm, and have demon­strated these again and again over the past months and years. If the present in­ci­dent is thought of as ‘dy­ing em­bers flick­er­ing brightly’, we should pre­pare for much more such ‘flick­er­ing’.” The in­ci­dents in Sukma are a case in point.

SAV­AGE AT­TACK Home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh and Chhattisgarh CM Ra­man Singh pay trib­ute to the CRPF troop­ers killed by Maoists in Chhattisgarh on April 24

TURF WAR Se­cu­rity per­son­nel guard a road con­struc­tion team in Dan­te­wada in 2016

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